THE FUTURE ISN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE
Walls and ceiling are in a restrained neo-classical style, and only the chill rush of air-conditioning reminds you that this is not the West End – that and the fact London audiences are extremely unlikely to see the performance the Blackstone is currently hosting: David Bowie starring in the American National Theatre and Academy production of New York-born and bred playwright Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man.
The Elephant Man was premiered in London at the Hampstead Theatre in 1977, has won several awards, played both on and off Broadway and recently enjoyed another London run with Paul Scofield in the leading role of John Merrick, the grotesquely deformed so-called Elephant Man from Leicester who was rescued from a sad and sorry life as a Victorian freakshow attraction by the eminent surgeon Frederick Trevers and who was subsequently lodged at the London Hospital in Whitechapel from 1886 until his death at the age of 27 in 1890.
Merrick’s physical abnormalities were extensive. His head was huge, egg-shaped and some 36″ in diameter, his face terribly distended and dominated by a gaping salivating maw of a mouth, his body draped with pendulous folds of skin that were themselves covered in foul-smelling, cauliflower-like fungoid growths, his right hand and arm a useless, unwieldy lump; only his left arm, its almost feminine hand and his sexual organs were left unscathed.
As a result it would be impractical if not impossible for the actor playing Merrick to hobble about the stage for some two hours encased in some sort of second skin that realistically depicted such ravages, and so Pomerance resorts to dramatic artifice. The audience is soon made aware of Merrick’s disabilities by the device of having Treves show a series of slides taken of the Elephant Man when he was first admitted to the London.
At this point in the play a curtain is pulled back to reveal a spotlit Bowie wearing nothing but a loincloth and standing with his legs apart and arms outstretched. As Treves dispassionately enumerates Merrick’s afflictions, so Bowie amplifies the gist of the surgeon’s lecture by gradually straining himself into the crumpled stance he will, one short scene expected, adopt for the remainder of the play. This brief sequence of mime is astonishing enough, but there’s better to come.
As well as having to adopt the Elephant Man’s crippled gait, Bowie is obliged to speak in an odd, high, fluted voice out of the side of his mouth, which in turn he has to violently contort. The character is also denied any degree of facial mobility since Merrick’s own face was rendered effectively static by its peculiar bone structure, and so Bowie must rely on eye and head movements to express emotion, something he manages with unsettling conviction.
Bowie succeeds in extracting a dramatic maximum out of the part and more significantly perhaps, he appears to have won the confidence and support of what is a very distinguished professional cast, one that he will leave behind him when he re-opens the play on Broadway in September. I can only add that I found Bowie’s performance deeply affecting.
Merrick (whose real name was Joseph not John; Treves himself made the mistake) was by all accounts a remarkable man who possessed great intelligence and sensibility beneath his horrifying exterior. Both these faculties blossomed after he was taken into the London, and are dwelt on in some depth by the play. To be able to portray the first outward stirrings of this unusual mind encased in its shell of literally rotting flesh is no mean task in itself, made doubly difficult since The Elephant Man depends entirely on the ability of the actor playing Merrick to constantly project the man’s awareness of his own predicament or, as Bowie puts it, his « newness » of mind and « physical vulnerability ».
That Bowie manages as much and more in what is his first ‘legitimate’ role in the Theatre is, to say the least, impressive – especially in the light of his last, excruciatingly hammy appearance on screen in Just A Gigolo. Time and again The Elephant Man hovers precariously between drama and melodrama, between tenderness and mawkishness, but Bowie’s evidently absolute immersion in the part of Merrick enables him to express every nuance that Pomerance intended. As Dan, a hip black Bowiephile from New York who’s passing through Chicago on business, remarks to me after Thursday’s show, « the play’s the thing. It really doesn’t matter who is Merrick as long as he’s good – and yes, Bowie is very, very good. »
Despite long distance interference from Barbara De Witt, who is nominally in charge of Bowie’s press worldwide and who calls from Los Angeles to tell me that I will find myself in « a one-hour situation with David », and despite the incompetence of RCA’s Chicago office, who can only play me five tracks of « Scary Monsters » and who drone on imbecilely about Bowie’s « incredible creative input », photographer Anton Corbijn and I arrive at the Blackstone early Thursday evening. We have both met Bowie briefly after the play the previous night, but our impressions were at best fleeting.
We go backstage and are again ushered into Bowie’s cramped dressing room. Anton asks if he can take pictures during the interview, but it is firmly rebuffed by Bowie: « I never allow it. Never. I find it most distracting ». Exeunt Anton and Coco Schwab, Bowie’s enigmatic personal press assistant, a helpful but reserved woman who has worked with Bowie for the past six or seven years, travelling with him wherever he goes, and who adopts a distinctly protective attitude towards the man.
Bowie grins a lot, looks extremely well and, lighting the first of a virtual chain of Marlboro, settles back opposite me adopting a suitably expectant but nonetheless commanding air. Almost shaking the cola out of a paper cup with nervousness, I broach the vexatious matter of De Witt’s time limit on the interview.
Bowie seems understanding of my position, but unimpressed by my banter. I’ve never met him before but I rapidly appreciate that he is not to be crossed. I begin to suspect that if he felt so inclined he would simply stop proceeding by elegantly stalking out of the room.
His good eye fixes me for an instant, he pulls deeply on his cigarette then, as if suddenly resigning himself to my presence and the obligations it entails, he replies with surprising hesitancy: « The thing is, you see, that – well, the reason why I haven’t given any interviews in recent years is simply because I’ve become, I think, very private. Also, (pause) to be honest I really don’t think I’ve got that much to say. But why don’t we just start and see how it goes? »
I mumble assent and we begin. Bowie’s earlier self-assurance seems to desert him occasionally during the 40-minute interview. If I ask him straightforward factual questions, he replies promptly enough. But if I touch on more sensitive areas, he becomes extremely evasive. He’ll either, infuriatingly, agrees with everything I’ve said, divulge so much (not much) before deciding some psychological Rubicon is about to be crossed and changing the subject or simply answer me with a question of his own.
Bowie laughs frequently, sometimes because he’s amused but more often because he’s only too well aware of what Ian MacDonald later describes to me as the « double vector » of our conversation. In other words, Bowie laughs whenever it occurs to him that he’s said or admitted something in a private encounter that is being recorded for public consummation. It’s as if with this reflex reaction he can somehow shrug off the momentary anxiety he feels at having, perhaps, given too much way.
Talking with Bowie makes me more then usually aware of the manifold absurdities inherent in the interview process. Why should Bowie tell me anything at all? He has little to gain and much to lose by doing so. We’re total strangers compelled by our respective positions and professions to confront each other for a ludicrously short time. For all Bowie knows I might just want to run for home and then tear him limb from limb in print. Mutual confidence and trust are understandably not easily win in such situations.
But if Bowie does worry on this score, he needn’t. I make a conscious effort to steel myself against his gushing charm, an attribute he can and indeed does call on at will with both men and the small crowds of the merely curious and fanatically adoring that greet him every night at the Blackstone’s stage door, but I still find myself liking the man; he’s in fact surprisingly sympathetic.
Although one of the most profoundly amoral people I’ve met, Bowie is nonetheless hamstrung by an acuity of self-awareness that constantly threatens to bemuse or even overwhelm him. I really don’t think he likes himself very much at times – and Bowie is extraordinarily introspective. His hyper-active mind resembles an entropic vortex that pulls a bewildering succession of variety of ideas, interests and influences into its orbit, arranging and then disarranging them at lightspeed. Concentration on any one thing for any length of time must pose him serious problems.
Bowie is also, or so it seems, painfully insecure. This is not something he flaunts in the hope of earning sympathy, but more of a compulsion. What he calls his ‘old re-examination program » evidently entails continual reassessment and often comprehensive re-writing of his past, an intensive form of self-therapy which in turn forces him to be forever redefining the motivations and behaviour of the various characters he has created and whose mantles he has adopted.
In this respect Joseph Merrick is no exception to the rule. The sheer pathos of the Elephant Man’s existence obviously entrances Bowie and so Merrick – or rather elements of what Bowie perceives Merrick to be – will undoubtedly merge imperceptibly in the man’s mind with all the other self-analytical data already accumulated there by the likes of Ziggy. To that extent, nothing’s changed. Bowie always has and probably always will ‘blame’ his characters for his own more irresponsible or, in his view, otherwise inexplicable actions. This exaggerated, almost hapless identification with what are really no more than sub-personalities of himself will presumably continue to provide Bowie with some very necessary degree of solace.
It is of course something that most of us periodically catch ourselves at, but Bowie’s past insistence on giving such characters concrete form by shining them through the distorting prism of the image-obsessed rock medium has meant that he’s developed the faculty to an extreme degree, and thereby totally bamboozled himself in the process. In fact Bowie has externalised so much of himself so often that he seems virtually incapable of confronting fundamentals. When I eventually ask him why he thinks people continue to find him interesting, he backs off with an immediate disclaimer that he’d never even try to answer such a question. Small wonder then that he finds it so hard – and yet so absorbing – to make mental ends meet.
A ‘weak’ person in the pejorative sense of the term Bowie most certainly isn’t though – a more wilful individual I can’t imagine. But given the complexities of his mercurial temperament – this a dark, deep pool from which I will draw no more then a glassful or two in the hour and a half I spend with him in Chicago – it becomes almost superfluous to have to point out how inconsistent he is and how often he bluntly contradicts himself.
Which doesn’t mean that nothing Bowie says can ever be taken at face value – far from it- but merely that it’s never any more or any less then what happens to cross his mind at a particular moment. The point’s been made on every occasion Bowie’s given a substantial interview, but its validity has, I’m convinced, increased rather then decreased with time – as, I feel, has Bowie’s pronounced ability to phrase what he says in such a way as to utterly disarm his interviewer; he’s uncannily adept at telling you exactly what he thinks you want to hear.
So much for psychoanalysis – when it’s all dripped and dried Bowie must speak for himself.
How did you come to play the part of Merrick?
Very simply. I saw the play just after Christmas. I wanted to see it on off-Broadway before it got all glossed up, but I wasn’t in America at the time. So I saw the thing, liked it as a piece of writing and for myself I thought I would have loved to have the part if it had ever been offered to me – but it hadn’t been.
And that was the last I thought about it until February of this year when I was back in New York recording the Scary Monsters thing. Jack Hofsiss the director approached me and asked me if I would consider taking over the role at the end of the year (on Broadway).
I wasn’t sure if I liked the idea. I wondered if he’d seen me perform or if he knew anything about me. But then he told me about my concerts and things, so he had indeed seen me – or if not then he had a great scriptwriter. I thought that as long as he directed me I’d be quite willing to take the chance. It’s the first piece of legitimate acting I’ve ever done per se. So I thought I might as well. It’s a very complex and difficult role, but if I was going to jump in anywhere, I might as well jump there.
Did you know anything about the Elephant Man himself before you saw the play?
Sure. A lot of those strange freak stories appealed to me in my teens and then stayed with me – everything from hairy women (laughs) to people with 15 lips. I read all that stuff avidly and of course I did my homework on Merrick.
It must have been a rather unsettling experience for you. The last time you encountered audiences as closely as you do here must have been back in Ziggy days.
Yes, it makes on suddenly very aware of how one’s body and one’s facial expressions function. It’s… you do feel you’re being scrutinised to an unbearable extent. It’s not that pleasurable, actually.
But I think that was the first thing I had to fight. After we’d finished rehearsals and opened in Denver I was furious with myself on the first night that the thing that was preoccupying me during the performances was how people were adjusting or relating to my body movements and that I hadn’t been considering the character at all. It took a good week to shake that feeling off and become interested and involved onstage with Merrick.
I suppose the obvious thought must have crossed your mind that people were coming to see the play simply because you were in it.
Yeah, but I also knew that if I hadn’t been successful within the first 15 or 20 minutes, then they’d have got up and started leaving because it’s not the kind of part you can fuck about with, frankly. You’ve got to be credible. You’ve got to be a believable Merrick or it all falls to pieces.
Especially as the full extent of Merrick’s deformities is measured through the other characters’ reaction to him. It’s their faces that register the shock and fright and fascination whereas, although you have to imitate Merrick’s crippled walk, you are pretty much as you are – with no make-up to speak of and certainly no folds of fungoid skin.
Absolutely. You’ve got to be forthcoming with some kind of physical vulnerability, to show that you have a sharp but ‘new’ mind – new inasmuch as Merrick hadn’t been in a situation where he could take advantage of the quite excellent mental process that he had. He had never been involved in that kind of higher society before. So in those terms it was a new mind, encased in this terrible grotesqueness. And you have to imply all that at once. It’s a terrible burden.
What about the physical aspects of the role – the walk, the way you have to speak out of the side of your mouth, and so on?
I didn’t find that any problem at all. I went back into mime training during rehearsals and I had to use the pre-imposed exercises before and after performances to get myself into and out of it. One’s spine can be damaged very badly. I had one night of excruciating pain when I didn’t do the exercises. I’ve been to a chiropractor every now and then just to check I’m not putting my spine out of place. It’s quite possible to do that, especially if you sit down in that position. You hear a click and think that’s it. That was also frightening for the first week, but you learn just how much pressure to use and when to lay back.
You must have explored the character in some depth by now. Merrick mirrors people; they all have their own preconceptions about him.
« We polish him so that he may better reflect ourselves, » as it’s later stated.
Yes, and that struck me as a role you might possibly relish.
It’s certainly one in which I can see strong parallels with other kinds of folk that I’ve tried to develop. Yes (insistently), after you – you had a line of thought there.
I’ve lost it.
(Laughs) OK, we’ll backtrack a bit. Yeah, studying Merrick. On a pedestrian level the first thing I did when I was told I actually had the part a couple of weeks before rehearsals started …
It was a very fast move. I had to make up my mind immediately I was told, so fortunately it didn’t give me time to get cold feet. I think if I’d had a couple of months to think about the part I would definitely have to get cold feet – over little things like could I project that far in a Theatre without a microphone, stuff and nonsense like that. When it comes to the crunch those things are really important.
But I didn’t have the chance. I had to say yes or no within 24 hours. I think they knew that as well. I think that Hofsiss knew that if I’d had time to think about it I would have dropped out. He was very clever psychologically in forcing me to face an issue like that.
So presumably you’d finished working on Scary Monsters by this time?
Yes, I was biding my time and was quite set to go back to the East or something. Then Hofsiss came to see me…
So anyway the first thing I did was to go to the London Hospital and see what’s left there. The real letdown was seeing the bloody church which was built. The real thing he made – in fact he gave it to Mrs Kendal and she donated it back to the hospital – was a penny plain and tuppence coloured thing that the nurses actually cut out for him; all he did was bend it up and stick it down. I was really disappointed that it wasn’t a little wooden structure that he had patiently and tenderly carved by hand.
But that liberty in the play is justified, isn’t it?
Oh yes, since one has to see that the purity Merrick was developing is evidenced in real form by the church that he was building. It’s a good idea to hang onto the old church as a symbol – and also of course his enraptured idea of what heaven was going to be like and that he would be saved.
There was no doubt about it in his mind. Even though God does these terrible things to man and sits back and waits for them to ask for forgiveness… despite that, Merrick was prepared to believe in heaven, because of Jesus, not so much because of God.
In fact Merrick’s very like the central character in that Werner Herzog film The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser. That particular part was played by someone called Bruno S whom Herzog just found on the streets and who demonstrated that same sort of ‘newness’ of mind. You know, like Merrick he has that capacity to swing between what seems to be the height of naivety and incredible, unnerving insight in the course of one remark. It’s like Herzog really believes that children are it, that they understand much more than adults and that growing up and gaining experience just destroys the power and the subtleties of their thinking.
It’s really such a used idea. I think it still captures the public’s imagination now for the same reason that the original Elephant Man captured the Victorians’ attention – because he looked funny. But what the play is actually doing is shoving that pure ‘new’ spirit into the middle of sordid society and then seeing what sort of juxtapositions you get.
On the one hand you’ve got the play having a dig at Victorian notions of morality and of helping or ‘improving’ people, and on the other there’s this peculiarly English thing of fascination with the grotesque, something that you can trace all the way back to, say Elizabethan bear-baiting, and further.
Absolutely. There are also, I must say, elements of the same thing in The Man Who Fell To Earth, although in that instance the purity of the character was corrupted.
You took the words out of my mouth. Thomas Jerome Newton is partly that corrupted innocent and partly – well, he’s obviously the creation of a very high level of technology and he can use that same technology very efficiently when necessary. So he’s charming, appealing and yet quite ruthless.
Yeah, he has this hi-tech emotional drive. He discards people and their values all the time. Actually though, it’s a false illusion of purity and in that sense it’s very Nic Roeg. Sorry, Nic, I love you but… There’s such a corruptness in Nic’s thought, one that…
That reached its zenith or nadir, depending on how you look at it with Bad Timing.
I saw it, I saw it. Wait for the next one. He starts it off at Christmas on Haiti. It’s about voodoo and if any of that crew come off that island alive I’d be very surprised. Nic is always presenting something that is none too clear but which seems superficially to be everything that one’s first impressions would have it be.
You know, pure spirit comes to earth, and they fuck it up. In fact, it’s nothing of that kind. There’s this insidious lie going on throughout the film; Newton is a far better person at the end of the film than he was when he came down. He’s actually found some sort of real emotional drive; he knows what it is to relate to people, and what the effects of all that on him are is secondary. When he first comes down, he doesn’t give a shit about anybody.
I’ve always seen Roeg as something of a fatalist, and sometimes a pretty demonic one at that.
I find him more like Puck. I would far more work with Roeg than, say Mr Anger (Kenneth Anger, author of ‘Hollywood Babylon’).
There is, you see, a great purity in Nic’s own thought. It’s convoluted, but it’s there. There’s an enormous struggle going on in his own mind. It’s a very tense; he asks himself why he wants to create things, to make films. He knows though, that he’s undertaking some great magic – I’m wary of saying spell but it’s some kind of ritual thing – when he’s making a film. I mean, knowing the man it’s very hard to look at the film (Bad Timing) without going back and feeling involved with him again. It’s such a personal film.
But talking about The Man Who Fell To Earth – I got the impression that Roeg had been very dictatorial with you, that he’d very much said that it was his film, that he had a very definite idea of how he wanted you to appear in it, that he really didn’t care whether you had any interesting ideas about film-making or not – those things could be discussed off the set but if anybody was going to channel them into the film it was going to be him.
Absolutely correct, all the way down the line. There was no – no, very little – essence of myself. I think the only freedom I was given was in choosing how the character would dress. That was it. That was the only thing I could claim at all, that I choose my wardrobe and that I put it in again – I had to – that Japanese influence, something that I felt had something to do with my very weak analogy between spacemen or a spaceman and what Westerners regard the Orientals as: an archetype kind of concept.
But you say there was very little of you in the film, whereas I’d say that there was as much David Bowie or whoever as we’re ever likely to see of you on film. I thought that you weren’t only at times physically naked but at others metaphysically so as well.
Yes, I agree there too, strangely enough. There are few directors who have the kind of discipline over actors that Nic has and who can then pull out more of the actor by doing that.
In The Man Who Fell To Earth you were almost, as it were, non-acting, just sublimating yourself to what you call Roeg’s discipline, whereas in Just A Gigolo you were obviously trying to act very hard and the result were abysmal, truly appalling.
Yeah, the film was a cack (laughs loudly), a real cack. Everybody who was involved in that film – when they meet each other now, they look away (covers face with hands, laughs).
Yes, it was one of those. Oh well, we’ve all got to do one and hopefully I’ve done mine now. I think the great failure on my part for becoming involved in that particular venture was my acceptance of the director (David Hemmings) as a person rather than actually bothering to consider what the script consisted of – or rather didn’t consist of, since it contained absolutely nothing – and also what experience the guy had had as a director.
I love Hemmings. He’s a terrific fella, and I fell for that. He’s wonderful and a great talker (laughs). Listen – you were disappointed, and you weren’t even in it. Imagine how we felt. Really, it was such a shame. I can only say that David and I are still great friends and we know what we did. We’ll never work together again. Friendship was saved, if nothing else.
Fortunately it’s been so long now that I don’t feel so uptight when I talk about it, but the first year or so after I’d made the thing I was furious, mainly with myself. I mean, oh God, I really should have known better. Every real, legitimate actor that I’ve ever met has told me never to even approach a film unless you know the script is good. If the script isn’t any good, then there’s no way a film is going to be good.
Back a bit – what about the music you wrote for The Man Who Fell To Earth?
Well, only one piece survived and became ‘Subterraneans’ on Low. I really can’t remember the details, but there was a great row – not between Nic and I because we kept apart from those areas; I didn’t want to row with Nic –a couple of er, unusual people who were putting the thing together.
I was under the impression that I was going to be writing the music for the film but, when I’d finished five or six pieces. I was then told that if I would care to submit my music along with other people’s… and I just said « Shit, you’re not getting any of it. » I was so furious, I’d put so much work into it.
Actually though, it was probably as well; my music would have cast a completely different reflection on it all. It turned out for the better and of course it did prompt me in another area – to consider my own instrumental capabilities, which I hadn’t really done very seriously before. The area was one that was suddenly exciting me, one that I never really considered would. And that’s when I got the first inklings of trying to work with Eno at some point.
I had the impression that several of the songs on Station To Station were quite strongly linked lyrically to The Man Who Fell To Earth: ‘TVC 15’ and ‘Word On A Wing’, for instance, and also but more indirectly ‘Wild Is The Wind’ and ‘Golden Years’.
‘Word On A Wing’ I can’t talk about. There were days of such psychological terror when making the Roeg film that I nearly started to approach my reborn, born again thing.
It was the first time I’d really seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth and ‘Word On A Wing’ was a protection. It did come as a complete revolt against elements that I found in the film. The passion in the song was genuine. It was also around that time that I started thinking about wearing this (fingers small silver cross hanging on his chest) again, which is now almost a left-over from that period.
I wear it, I’m not sure why I wear it now even. But at the time I really needed this. Hmmm (laughs), we’re getting into heavy waters… but yes, the song was something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening on the film set.
At the end of my review of Lodger I said rather flippantly that I thought you were ripe and ready for religion. That album seemed so desperate, so disparate, just a snapshot collage of journeyman melancholy; God seemed to be just about all you had left.
(Laughs) Yes, I can understand that, but I think you were probably post-period there. It had already hit me. There was point when I very nearly got suckered into that narrow sort of looking – no, finding the cross as the salvation of mankind around the Roeg period.
That whole period stretching through to ’76 was probably the worst year or year and a half of my life in the old re-examination program.
I imagine Berlin must have knocked a lot of that stuffing out of you.
Oh yeah, it was best thing that could have happened to me. I’d come out of the American thing with (pause, sigh) smashed ideals inasmuch as I’d found that the ideals I did have weren’t worth a shit anyway, that I was too willing to jump from point of view to point of view without taking into account the consequences of anything I was doing, just breaking out of the American cocoon. And so yes, Berlin was definitely the best place I could have gone.
At least Low and ‘Heroes’ both had a certain emotional consistency, although it was sometimes a very distraught, withdrawn and perhaps cynical one. At least you were – well, looking at things again, or maybe for the first time, as opposed to just staring at images or reflections.
Yeah, looking at things, but with not that much conviction about whether I’m right or wrong about what I’m seeing. I think those three albums helped me to appreciate that my make-up is generally much more of a microcosm of what society is than me standing back and saying « This is what society is about. »
Before, up until the ’76 period, I was far more of the opinion that I had some kind of definite viewpoint on how society was made up and what it represented. But now I’m feeling like a society in myself, so broken up and fragmented that it’s best just to throw me into the (pause)…
Into the ring? But isn’t all that just the belated arrival of some sort of maturity, some realisation that you were fallible?
It was. To use a cliche – and why not? – it was… some kind of maturity.
Which brings us to your rather extraordinary means of arrival at Victoria Station in late ’75. I was very perturbed by that: the black Mercedes, the handsome blonde outriders and everything. I was there (at which point Bowie laughs briefly, as if embarrassed) and I came away thinking you were some sort of fascist maniac. The incident has never been very satisfactorily explained; I just thought you must have consumed an enormous amount of cocaine in Los Angeles (Bowie chuckles broadly). I mean, that Rolling Stone interview with darkened room, the black candles and the bodies falling past the window, and then seeing the Cracked Actor television film of ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour at around the same time – it all convinced me and a lot of other people that you’d flipped completely, wanted to take over the world or had some such equality idiotic, megalomanic gameplan.
(Still laughing) No, I’m sure none of that helped in the past.
So what were you up to then?
Well, actually, Victoria Station (long pause) … now this you’re going to believe, but everything else you’re saying is absolutely correct. I had indeed been bombed out for quite long time.
This was all an escape plan heralded by a couple of friends of mine – I won’t say who they are – who helped me get out of America and get back to Europe, whatever. That whole ‘Station To Station’ tour was done under duress. I was out of my mind totally, completely crazed. Really. But the main thing I was functioning on was – as far as that whole thing about Hitler and rightism was concerned – it was mythology.
I was in the depths of mythology. I had found King Arthur. It was not as you probably know because… I mean, this whole racist thing which came up, quite inevitably and rightly, But – and I know this sounds terribly naive – but none of that had actually occurred to me, inasmuch as I’d been working and still do work with black musicians for the past six or seven years. And we’d all talk about it together – about the Arthurian period, about the magical side of the whole Nazi campaign, and about the mythology involved.
All that stuff was flying around, buzzing around the skies. I could see it. Everywhere I looked, demons of the future on the battlegrounds of one’s emotional plain and all that … I was in a haze of mythology. Mixed up too of course were my own fucking characters. The Thin White Duke – throwing him, it was like kicking him. There was such an addictive thing about what was happening there that actually being able to ride that particular storm I was able to send a lot to those demons back to their – well, wherever it is they live.
Altogether, none of it is something to be dealt with unless you’re in a particularly stable frame of mind.
Yes, the temptations to draw all the wrong conclusions are too great. But you can always notice these thing surfacing into the cultural mainstream. I mean, the number of books you’ll find in the « Occult » racks of, say, Smith’s these days about the Third Reich and its supposed occultist tendencies.
Oh God yes, I know it all … ghastly stuff.
Yes, and there’s more and more of it now. They’re even writing pulp novels on the subject, that connection between Arthurian literature and legend and the Reich. There’s James Herbert’s The Spear and Duncan Kyle’s Black Camelot: the SS and their Grail castles, very subversive and dangerous material, you know.
Yes, I know. Only too well. It’s so insidious – and of course the first thing that happened to me when I got to Berlin was that I really had to face up to it, because all the people I had as friends there were naturally extreme leftists.
Suddenly I was in a situation where I was meeting young people of my age whose fathers had actually been SS men, That was a good way to be woken up out of that particular dilemma, and start to re-function in a more orderly fashion – not totally ordered, but you know… yeah, I came crashing down to earth when I got back to Europe.
And Los Angeles, that’s where it had all happened. The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth. To be anything to do with rock and roll and to go and live in Los Angeles is I think just heading for disaster. It really is. Even Brian Eno, who’s so adaptable and quite as versatile as I now am living in strange and foreign environments, he couldn’t last there more than six weeks. He had to get out. But he was very clever: he got out much earlier than I did.
Alright, so we have this sort of manic destabilisation in LA and then re-adjustment in Berlin, up to a point at least. But there again at the end of ‘Red Money’ on Lodger there’s that line about « responsibility, it’s up to you and me » – whereas in ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ on the new album there’s more than a suggestion of admitting defeat, or if not that them implying that there’s bugger all you or I or anybody can do about the state of things.
Well, admitting it? I don’t actually agree with that viewpoint, you see. To digress completely for a moment – I still adopt the view that music itself carries its own message, instrumentally I mean. Lyrics are not needed because music does have an implicit message of its own; it makes its case very pointedly. If that were not the case, then classical music would not have succeeded to the extent that it did in implying and carrying some definite point of view, some attitude which presumably can’t be expressed with words.
That’s why I’m furious you didn’t get to hear the album because the lyrics taken on their own are nothing without the secondary sub-text of what the musical arrangement has to say, which is so important in a piece of popular music. It makes me very angry – and I’m not saying you’re doing it at all – when people concentrate only on the lyrics because that’s to imply there is no message stated in the music itself, which wipes out hundreds of years of classical music. Ridiculous.
If that’s the case then I suppose I’d better concentrate on what I’ve heard and seen. The ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video is very striking. Did David Mallet (who made the three Lodger videos) direct that?
That’s my first direction. Well, no, I’ll cross with him there. The other three that were done for Lodger were co-directions inasmuch as I gave David complete control over what I wanted put in there. But this one I storyboarded myself, actually drew it frame for frame. He edited it exactly as I wanted it and has allowed me to say (adopts Edward Heath voice) publicly that it is my first direction. I’ve always wanted to direct and this is a great chance to start – to get some money from a record company and then go away and sort of play with it.
Those recurring images of the astronaut they’re very reminiscent of HR Giger’s sets for Ridley Scott’s Alien film.
Yes they are, and intentionally so. It was supposed to be the archetypal 1980s ideal of the futuristic colony that has been founded by the earthling, of what he looks like – and in that particular sequence the ideas was for the earthling to be pumping out himself and to be having pumped into him something organic. So there was a very strong Giger influence there: the organic meets hi-tech.
There’re an awful lot of cliched things in the video but I think I put them together in such a way that the whole thing isn’t cliched – at least inasmuch as the general drive of the sensibility that comes over is some feeling of nostalgia for a future. I’ve always been hung up on that; it creeps into everything I do, however far away I try to get from it. It does recur and it’s something I have to admit to and I can’t … and that’s obviously part of what I’m all about as an artist (this said with uncharacteristic assertion).
Now I tend to go with it rather then escape from it because it’s obviously an area that, even if I refuse to face it, does interest me. The idea of having seen the future, of somewhere we’ve already been keeps coming back to me.
Do you extend that to believing in the possibility of cyclic civilisations?
No, not on that kind of simplistic level. I don’t … I think I work even more these days from dream sequences.
But then surely you’re acknowledging some sort of wellspring of the collective unconscious? It’s hard to think straight about this kind of thing – I mean, is it all down to 2001-type interference? You know, They came from other worlds to give us knowledge, and so on.
(With sudden enthusiasm) Have you ever read a book called The Origins Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind? It sounds an awful title but it’s really a very easy book to read. In fact it’s an extraordinary book written by a guy called Julian Jaynes, which suggests that at one point the mind was definitely of a schizoid – no, a dual nature and that the right hand passed messages through to the left side of the brain, and vice versa. It’s highly interesting.
I related to that tremendously because I’ve often had that feeling very strongly with myself that … well, it’s like what Dylan said about the tunes are just in the air. I still believe in that kind of naive approach to writing. I leave the cerebral stuff to the Enos and Fripps of this world. Because I’m far more tactile in my approach to what I do. I think it’s probably why we work together so well.
We could go off at a tangent and talk about the vagaries of human intelligence for hours, but it doesn’t look as if we’ve got the time. But thinking about Eno and Fripp – I used to like most of what they did on their own records a lot, but now have my doubts about all this endless conceptualising. I just don’t think it ultimately delivers in most cases; Fripp’s God Save The Queen/Under Heavy Manners album struck as a prime example – some of its theory was fascinating, but much of its practice, of what actually appeared on the album was unremittingly dull. The same, I felt, went for Eno’s Music For Airports.
I must say I like working with Brian a lot, but I think this happens to conceptualists; they often have the seeds and germs of truly revolutionary ways of doing things, which I believe Brian does.
I really think he’s one of the brightest minds I’ve met in this particular area, although of course he’s duplicated many times over in the field, in the so-called more serious world of painting, where you can find a conceptualist for every square yard. But there are few in this business and Brian is definitely one of them, and he has moments of true genius. I think some of the music on Another Green World was really, for want of a better word, transcendental. I dare say we’ll be working together again.
Some more specific points – this question of Major Tom reappearing in ‘Ashes To Ashes’… he seems to be a fairly indestructible character. Why does he continue to interest you?
Again, the sub-text of ‘Ashes To Ashes’ is quite obviously the nursery rhyme appeal of it and for me it’s a story of corruption. It’s also about as subversive as one can get in popular music terms inasmuch as I would love to get a record played by the BBC containing the word « junkie ». I thought that was quite successful (grins). There’s not much you can do these days; we’re all such a blasé, world weary lot (laughs).
But if one can make anything more serious out of it all other than that it’s The Further Stories Of, it’s that when I originally wrote about Major Tom I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought I knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop.
Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space and once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him. Now we’ve found out that he’s under some kind of realisation that the whole process that got him up there had decayed, was born out of decay; it has decayed him and he’s in the process of decaying. But he wishes to return to the nice, round womb, the earth, from whence he started.
I guess it’s that simple. I really don’t think there’s anything more insidiously perverse about the thing at all. It really is an ode to childhood, if you like, a popular nursery rhyme. It’s about space men becoming junkies (laughs).
What about the new, simpler version of ‘Space Oddity’?
That came about because Mallett wanted me to do something for his show and he wanted ‘Space Oddity’.
I agreed as long as I could do it again without all its trappings and do it strictly with three instruments. Having played it with just an acoustic guitar onstage early on I was always surprised as how powerful it was just as a song, without all the strings and synthesisers. In fact the video side of it was secondary; I really wanted to do it as a three-piece song.
Are you storyboarding the other two videos for ‘Scary Monsters’?
Oh yes, now I’ve started, no one will stop me. Also another thing I’ve come up with over the last six months are my first stoned-out video tapes that I did in 1972 on black an white reel to reel, which are so exciting, and some later ones I did after ‘Diamond Dogs’.
In those I recreated the set for ‘Diamond Dogs’ – this was in the Pierre Hotel in New York – and I built three or four-foot high buildings out of clay on tables. Some were standing up, others were crumbling and I took the camera and put a micro-lens on it, zooming down the streets in between the tables.
I tried animation out and had all these characters; the whole thing is so bizarre I’m going to put together and put it out as a cassette. And as it’s silent – there’s a few bits of strange music on it but nothing much else; mainly I used the Diamond Dogs album as a backing track.
You know, I wanted to make film of Diamond Dogs so passionately, so badly; I really wanted to do that, I had the whole roller skating thing in there. We had no more cars because of the fuel problems – which was super stuff to look back on and say yes, I thought that then – and these characters with enormous, rusty, sort of organic-looking roller skates with squeaking wheels that they couldn’t handle very well. Also I had groups of these cyborg people wandering around looking so punky it’s going to be a lovely tape to put out. I want to write some new music for it though: a piece of music accompanied by a sort of strange black and white vision.
Because Diamond Dogs is certainly a retro-active sort of idea, one that seems to work much better after the event.
Now there’s a certain quaintness in some of its arrangements that pieces it into the ’70s as an artefact of the time.
Chopping and changing a bit, tell me about ‘Fashion’ and the first part of ‘It’s No Game (#1)’, both of which I have heard.
The Japanese lyrics to the first ‘It’s No Game (#1)’ are exactly the same as the others, although ‘Part 1’ sees a more sort of animal approach on my part. Also, repeating me parrot fashion but in Japanese is a young Japanese girl friend of mine who says the lyric in such a way as to give the lie to the whole very sexist idea of how Japanese girls are so very prim. She’s like a Samurai the way she hammers it out. It’s no longer the little Geisha girl kind of thing, which really pisses me off because they’re just not like that at all.
And ‘Fashion’? You mention « the goon squad » – fascism?
No, not really. It’s more to do with that dedication to fashion. I was trying to move on a little from that Ray Davies concept of determination and an unsureness about why one’s doing it. But one has to do it, rather like one goes to the dentist and has the tooth drilled. I mean, you have to have it done, putting up with the fear and the aggravation. It’s that kind of feeling about fashion, which seems to have in it now an element that’s all too depressing.
But that’s hardly surprising when so many kids are leaving school today and not being able to find jobs, is it? If that is the case, then you’re going to make bloody sure you have a good time down the disco or wherever.
I don’t know, you know. The American disco I went to in the early ’70s in New York when it was supposed to be the hot new thing that was sweeping the city – well, I never felt that grim determination that one feels now. There is that. Yes, I must say I did feel it when I was in London. I was taken to one extraordinary place by … Steve Strange? God, what was it called? Everybody was in Victorian clothes. I suppose they were part of the new new wave or the permanent wave or whatever… (enter Coco making throat-slitting gestures) … it’s the Valkyrie (laughs). We’ll have some more time but I’ll have to keep it to a minimum.
As we finish, I protest to Bowie about this « minimum. » I overstate my case to Bowie, and he suddenly snaps « Alright, alright, don’t sell it to me, Angus. I don’t need anybody to sell me anything ». I retire in confusion and, convinced that I’ve aged years in less than an hour, make my exit.
FRIDAY afternoon finds Anton and I awaiting Bowie and Coco in a small, seedy bar opposite the Blackstone. They arrive on time and Bowie, sharing Anton’s delight at having found Sinatra’s ‘God’s Face Looks Like’ on the jukebox, agrees to the photographer’s request to do a session there and then, but not without first consulting Coco.
The bar’s proprietor, a Chicano with knife scars criss-crossing the left-hand side of his face an neck, looks on in amazement.
We move to the theatre and on a whim Bowie suggests we do the interview onstage. I agree and so we heave table and chairs into position. The contrast with the claustrophobic dressing room couldn’t be more complete. Whereas yesterday Bowie and I fenced tensely at each other, today we both seem much more at our ease. For my part I have noted down some dozen simple, factual questions and when these are dismissed, I plan to freewheel. Bowie seems positively expansive. It’s as if we’re both convinced we have the other’s measure.
As it transpires the interview’s very informality belies the way it progresses. Much to my surprise, after initial evasions Bowie begins to discuss himself with very little prompting and answers off-the-cut questions I’m quite prepared for him to ignore altogether. Or so it seems.
On reflection it occurs to me that wondering whether or not Bowie is being as straightforward and comforting as he appears to be is pointless, just as to depict him as the archetypal manipulator-chameleon who invariably vanishes behind a verbal smokescreen of his own making is both fatuous and unfair. Suffice to say that, soon becoming quite oblivious to our surroundings, Bowie and I talk intensively for some 35 minutes. If our conversation doesn’t follow a very logical course, that’s only because most conversations don’t but, since this one had a peculiarly insistent flow, I’ve left it unedited, intact.
Why did you choose to do a Tom Verlaine song (‘Kingdom Come’) on the new album?
That particular cut, it was simply one of the most appealing on his album. I’d always wanted to work with him in some way or another, but I hadn’t considered doing one of his songs. In fact Carlos Alomar, my guitarist, suggested that we do a cover version of it since it was such a lovely song.
It’s about the notion of grace. Did that influence you at all?
Yes and no. The song just happens to fit into the scattered scheme of things, that’s all.
Why did you release two more versions of ‘John I’m Only Dancing’?
Only because we dug them up and the beat version was something that never got on the Young Americans album. It seemed so right at the time and RCA wanted to put it out, and I agreed to it fully. It was just some more material that was held back there. I’ve still got lots of things canned like that which I’d like to release, things like ‘White Light White Heat’ with the Spiders.
Do you have complete control over what RCA put out under your name?
Oh no, they’ve put out things without my approval. ‘Velvet Goldmine’ is the one that immediately springs to mind. That whole thing came out without my having the chance to listen to the mix; somebody else had mixed it – an extraordinary move.
But haven’t you recently re-negotiated your contract with RCA? Surely you can put a stop to that sort of thing?
No, I most certainly haven’t. We’re miles away from that and shall just have to see what happens.
There were rumours that RCA weren’t very happy with Lodger.
That’s true. They weren’t happy with Low either. At the time the one comment I received from them was « Can we get you another pad in Philadelphia? », so that I could do another Young Americans. That was the kind of attitude I was having to cope with.
Does that appeal to you, making another ‘Young Americans’-type of album?
I don’t know. You see, my own needs were satisfied within that area in the ’73/’74 period, when I was staying as much as I could there, crashing down with people in either Philadelphia or New York. I spent an awful lot of time in that kind of environment.
Leaping about a bit…
That’s alright, I’m in the mood.
‘Red Sails’ from Lodger – was the Neu influence there intentional?
Yes, definitely. That drum and guitar sound, that especially, is quite a dream. The moments of difference though, they came from Adrian (Belew, Bowie’s guitarist at the time) not being played Neu; he’d never heard them. So I told him the atmosphere I wanted and he came up with the same conclusions that Neu came up with, which was fine by me. That Neu sound is fantastic.
You seemed at one time to have a fondness for using rather hysterical lead guitars: Earl Slick, Ricky Gardiner and then Belew.
Well, that’s a contrivance of my own. What I do is, say, use four tracks for a recorded solo and then I cut them up, knock up a little four-point mixer clipping the solos in and out. I give myself arbitrary numbers of bars in which they can play within a particular area, and go backwards and forwards from one track to another. So yes, the effect is somewhat histrionic.
Moving on again to ‘Teenage Wildlife’ on Scary Monsters, is it addressed to anybody in particular?
I guess … no, if I had my kind of mythical younger brother, I think it might have been addressed to him. It’s for somebody who’s not mentally armed.
To cope with what?
The shell shock of actually trying to assert yourself in society and your newly found values… I guess the younger brother is my adolescent self.
And who are the « midwives to history » who put on « their bloody robes »?
(Laughs) I have my own personal bloody midwives. We all have them. Mine shall remain nameless. For the sake of the song they’re symbolic; they’re the ones who would not have you be fulfilled.
You still seem to be quite concerned with giving advice to younger people.
I think that more and more that advice is given to myself; I often play questions and answer time with myself, however momentarily. I don’t seriously think I could offer anybody else any advice at all. It would be about as profound as (chuckles) Alfred E. Neuman. It’s just not my thing, maaann.
Obvious questions which I suppose I’m obliged to ask – what do you think of Gary Numan and John Foxx and all the other little Diamond Dog clones?
I only have opinions on them because I’ve been asked about them; I never had any before. I’ve already been asked once about Numan over the last month.
Foxx – I think he gives himself a wider berth; I think there’s more diversity in what he does and could do.
Numan? I really don’t know. I think what he did – that element of ‘Saviour Machine’ – type things – I think he encapsulated that whole feeling excellently. He really did a good job on that kind of stereotype, but I think therein lies his own particular confinement. I don’t know where he intends going or what he intends doing, but I think he has confined himself terrifically. But that’s his problem, isn’t it?
What Numan did he did excellently but in repetition, in the same information coming over again and again, once you’ve heard one piece.
It’s rather sterile vision of a kleen-machine future again.
But that’s really so narrow. It’s that false idea of hi-tech society and all that which is… doesn’t exist. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that sort of society. It’s a enormous myth that’s been perpetuated unfortunately, I guess, by readings of what I’ve done in that rock area at least, and in the consumer area television has an awful lot to answer for with its fabrication of the computer-world myth.
Those lines from ‘Ashes To Ashes’ spring to mind « I’ve never done good things/I’ve never done bad things/I’ve never done anything out of the blue ». You seem to be saying that you’re not prepared to judge your own achievements. Do you feel any – how shall I put it? – guilt about having helped propagate the sort of delusions we’re talking about?
Well, how did you define those three lines?
Like many of your lyrics, they’re infuriatingly ambivalent (at which Bowie grins). They could be referring to the Major Tom character specifically or – well, to put it another way, I can accept that in your career there has been more than a certain amount of calculation, which I think you’ve probably exploited in retrospect. That’s to say you’ve claimed you planned A, B and C.
(Pause) Whereas in fact you may well have planned D, E and Z. But it worked, and you’ve been very fortunate in that respect. I don’t know, I tend to believe that more often than not people’s morality is completely screwed when they assume positions of public prominence, and that audiences presume a lot, too much perhaps, of those in whom they invest so much commitment.
I agree (pause)…
So would you dissociate yourself from that statement?
(Sigh) No, not really. Those three particular lines represent a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what I’ve done. (Bowie absently traces a finger around his mouth then proceeds, choosing his words very carefully) I have an awful lot of reservations about what I’ve done inasmuch as I don’t feel much of it has any import at all. And then I have days when of course it all feels very important to me, that I’ve contributed an awful lot. But I’m not awfully happy with what I’ve done in the past actually.
So what would you include amongst your positive achievements?
The idea that one doesn’t have to exist purely on one defined set of ethics and values, that you can investigate other areas and other avenues of perception and try and apply them to everyday life. I think I’ve tried to do that. I think I’ve done that fairly successfully. At times, even if only on a theoretical level, I’ve managed that. As far as everyday life goes, I don’t think so…
I have this great long chain with a ball of middle-classness at the end of it which keeps holding me back and that I keep sort of trying to fight through. I keep trying to find the Duchamp in me, which is harder and harder to find (laughs).
Why should middle-classness be a problem? Isn’t that kind of exaggerated class consciousness a peculiarly English affliction?
Yes, of course, and a class consciousness is a very great wall of contention with me, always getting in my way.
What is it that you feel then, you should have ‘suffered’ more for your art or something?
Oh no, not at all. Not on that level. I just keep finding my vision gets blinkered and becomes narrowed all the time. I’m continually trying to open it up and break it down and do shattering things to it – and that’s when it becomes dangerous, I suppose.
But don’t you understand your own creative faculties any better now than when you started writing? Doesn’t some at least of the more critical attention you receive in the media help you in that respect?
I don’t know, you see. There are few magazines or newspapers or television programs that will deal with me on the same level that your paper would, for instance. In the majority of the media – there I’m completely stifled. I have been for years. I have never been anything other than Ziggy Stardust for the media masses.
And yet even that – well, it’s a ghost of your own making. When you toured and recorded what became the Stage album, for example the first part of the show was old songs, very old songs. I suppose I over-reacted, but I must admit I did feel a vague sense of betrayal.
Yes, because I’d been impressed by Low and ‘Heroes’ at the time, although I feel differently about them now. But I just felt you were very consciously trying to recover your old audience again – a move that seemed to cancel out the validity of the newer material. Altogether I was naive enough to think it was a bit of a cheap trick.
I think it was rather to do with two ideas that I felt strongly. One was that I actually wanted to play ‘Ziggy’ album from top to bottom, from bottom to top, one to nine, because I suddenly found it again an enjoyable piece of music to listen to, having not done it for quite a few years on stage. So there was pure personal enjoyment value in there. On the other hand, I’m only too willing to admit to the number of people who come to see me to hear a lot of those old songs and without any hesitation I’m quite willing to play them. I will also play the things I’m doing currently. But I have absolutely no qualms about playing older things of mine that people like.
Do you have any plans to tour?
Yes, next spring. I say this every time and I hope it happens – I want to play smaller places. I think this, the play, has helped a lot; it encourages me to work in smaller environments.
At the same time Broadway is beckoning. After all, Scary Monsters can be used as a very convenient crutch. It’s a new Bowie album and there hasn’t been one for some time, therefore it will probably sell well enough with or without you touring. Are you or would you be tempted by the prospect of taking another part on the stage or perhaps another film lead?
At this time, as we talked yesterday about my 32 Elvis Presley movies contained in one, I wouldn’t jump at the first thing that came along by any means. No, whatever it was, it would have to be a script that had the same kind of power as Elephant Man.
You give the impression that by becoming involved in the play and the part, you’ve proved a lot to yourself.
Oh yes, I was well surprised that I was able to do this successfully. My confidence was at a very low ebb on opening night. I was terrified actually.
And you must have also proved to yourself that you can exist quite satisfactory outside of the rock sphere.
I’ve been doing that for a long time (laughs), since ’76 in fact.
Not so satisfactorily as now.
For me completely so… oh, but you mean on a public level?
Ah well, maybe not then.
Obviously music continues to interest you, but you skim quite a bit across its surface – an African influence here, a Japanese influence there. Do you ever feel you’re in danger of misrepresenting some of the cultures you’re very fond of?
I don’t think that by taking a Japanese or an African emblem or motif I try to represent them at all. I would have thought it was pretty transparent that it was me trying to relate to that particular culture; not in my wildest dreams would I think I was trying to represent them.
But relating to what end? To your own satisfaction?
Because I’ve been there. Because it was there, rather. It is no more than… it does get back onto the sketchpad basis for songs for me. Often. And I guess that Lodger was the sketchpad of all of them.
Do you feel you’re too old to be writing rock songs any more?
I don’t know much of it is rock any more. Music then? I don’t think I’m too old to be writing the music I write either. (laughs) That was an extraordinary thing to say. I mean, good God, when was the last time I wrote a rock song? Can you remember? I’m damned if I can.
It depends. Place one of your recent albums against one of Van Halen’s and we’re obviously not talking about the same sort of thing.
Well, there you are. I don’t think I would try to revitalise the same area of energy and sensibilities that, say, Ziggy had. I wouldn’t attempt that again, because I haven’t got that same positivism within my make-up any more. I mean, the very juvenile sort of assertiveness and arrogance of that period. He said modestly (laughs). I can’t write young.
But you address yourself to the young – what about ‘Because You’re Young’ on Scary Monsters?
I think repeatedly that having got a nine-year-old son that’s an area where I can try and talk to an age group that I’ve been through.
Do you think any of your audience have grown with you, so to speak, all the way?
Not necessarily. My audience has diminished remarkably over the years.
Does that bother you?
No, not at all.
Does it bother you financially?
Yes it does. On those terms doing something like this is not something one does for the kind of money that rock and rollers can charge. And also of course, I’ve never made any money on tours. Ever. Ever.
Why do you think people continue to find you interesting?
That’s for you to answer. I’d never even try to answer that.
Because you don’t want to?
Because I don’t want to, and I don’t want to because I can’t. That’s something that I would really have no interest in trying to find out. I think I would far prefer to spend more time on finding out if I am still interesting to myself, if I still feel, if I still relate if I still have any capacity for understanding where I am within the very tight, very small area of society that I physically live in.
That for me is more interesting. If I can then broadcast my own doubts through my pieces of music, however that’s related to by an audience, that’s quite honestly where the responsibility for me stops. I can do no more than write about how I feel about things or how I… what dubious kind of thoughts I have about where I am and what I’ve done.
You’re saying all that makes you seem quite er, vulnerable, quite unsure of yourself. But can you draw up any sort kind of moral guidelines for your work? Do you feel that somebody like yourself who’s exposed to public scrutiny has any kind of responsibility in that way?
I don’t think it’s up to the one single person. It becomes a collective responsibility. Because, like it or not, whatever I do or say is going to be interpreted in a fair or unfair manner by disparate elements of the media.
So the responsibility is not mine alone and I do have to consider what I should contribute and then hazard a guess at how it will be dealt with. As I say, I’m still referred to over here as the orange-haired bisexual. Now that is what I am here. Period. Zilch. There’s nothing else.
After all (laughs), if ever there was a country of stereotypes and icons, this is the one. If you don’t fall radically into some confinement or department, then they will stab away until they find something that is so superficially concrete that it will become the flag that they will wave.
Or the box to bury you in.
Absolutely. Far more so than in England or Europe generally. The other people who tend to do that, much as I like them, are the Japanese; they come up with isms as well.
But there the process is in reverse, Japan having been actually and culturally invaded by America.
Oh sure, and of course there’s a great anti-American thing there.
What is it that continues to fascinate you about Japan?
For me it’s a physical representation – or I can read it in terms of that – of great new modern advances precariously balanced against an old, kind of mythological way of thinking and being.
Does the outward theatricality of the old Japanese way of life appeal to you? I mean, like the Go player who lives his whole life by the rules of the game he becomes so expert and accomplished at as he grows older – the definition of that selfless sort of freedom being that, the more you subordinate yourself to a particular discipline, the freer you are.
Oh yes, very much. It appeals to me on the surface but it’s something I can’t handle myself (laughs). Yes, it’s wandering back and looking at something that I felt would have a place in my life at one time. That kind of thing…
By which you mean what?
When I was flirting around with the ideal of Buddhism, which was also a set of values and disciplines that have to be adhered to in a strict form. At that time I had some idea of my way, or my potential, with nature… and I wished to confine it. What does Merrick say about truths? That they’re « restriction, governance and punishment » (laughs). It’s that self-flagellation element again in me…
Doesn’t it also have something to do with the idea of the typically cultured but dissatisfied Western man feeling envious of the ‘simple’ truths of, say, a rigorous Eastern religion? Don’t you feel that at all?
Yes, I do, I do. It’s not infrequent that I wake up on a chilly morning and wish that I was in Kyoto or somewhere and in a Zen monastery. That feeling lasts for well over five or six minutes before I go and have a cigarette and a cup of coffee and (laughs) go for a walk round the block to shake that off. That idea of being controlled by an aesthetic set of values does recur with me.
I still have a pipe dream that when I’m an old chap (the ‘p’ deliberately over-stressed) I shall go off to the Far East and smoke opium and go out in a sort of euphoric, cloudy bliss.
Would you be reincarnated?
I think I’d have to be (laughs) – many, many times.
What would you want to become?
What I might want to be and what I might become are two very different kettles of poison (laughs). Let’s see, what would I want to be? Good Go … well, it wouldn’t be Lou Reed (loud laughter all around). But… probably a rock and roll journalist.
Well, I wouldn’t want to be David Bowie.
(Laughing) No, no one’s reincarnated as David Bowie. I’m quite positive of that.
Back to this middle-classness though – can you expand on what really bothers you about it?
I guess it restricts my thinking…
In what particular ways? Morally, aesthetically?
Aesthetically. Morally I’ve never had too much – I sort of approach things in quite a barbarian fashion when it comes to morals. It’s more to do with aesthetic values for my own writing. What I write is so inadequate.
Compared to what? The writing of people you admire?
Compared to a Genet. Yeah, I do put myself against other writers and find my sensibilities thwarted and rather dulled and that… angers me.
Is it that you’re annoyed because you’re so busy filtering other influences that you feel you might actually not be expressing yourself at all? Or is it that you feel there’s no essence that is David Bowie that can suddenly rush through? Maybe you think that people like Duchamp and Genet had some kind of incredible mainline that just thrust them forward regardless?
I think that I have a mainline, but I couldn’t define it. Again, I wouldn’t wish to; there’s a danger in trying to define that one thing. There’s also a particular spirit value that I find very difficult to articulate and I guess that’s my, my mainline as you put it.
But it comes and goes, it hides, it gets lost and it reappears, rather like a stream that you come across when you’re walking through a wood. You see it sometimes and it sparkles and then it disappears. And that makes me angry when it disappears (here Bowie’s tone becomes distant, abstracted, almost as if he’s talking aloud to himself). And I should be happy about that because it’s the natural way of things – but when it does disappear, which is known I think as a dry-up, then that is the most frustrating feeling of all.
I get repetitive feeling that … (Coco appears in the auditorium; Bowie suggests we talk for another five or ten minutes) that … come back, come back (he gestures with his left hand, as if plucking something out of the air).
Yes, I get the repetitive feeling that it is – and this somebody else’s statement, I know –that the worst joke God can play is to make you an artist, but only a mediocre artist. And that happens, you get that kind of feeling. And one can get so despondent and melancholy and (lowering his voice, almost choking the word out) bellicose. And, boy, do I get bellicose.
But can’t someone in your privileged sort of position afford to indulge himself in a little breast-beating?
(Genuinely astonished) Do you really believe that?
No, of course not. You’re just as entitled to be nagged by self-doubts as anyone else; it was a leading question.
Really though, I think the greatest problem comes in wondering why I think that any of what I write should be of any import to anybody. And that’s something I find more and more – that my contribution isn’t enough.
But that’s a problem of your own making.
Oh, quite. That dissatisfaction, it’s an old quandary that all writers come across all the time. It’s certainly nothing new; it seems to follow the integral feelings of most writers.
Perhaps your uncertainty and self-doubt are in fact your leading edge?
It seems to be so. It seems to be my one focus. Uncertainty? Yes, if there’s one thing I’ve contributed, it’s a great dollop of uncertainty (laughs). For better or worse.
There again, artistic certainty can be boring, as some would say it’s been in Dylan’s case since he ‘found’ God.
Although I must say I can see, I can feel exactly what brought that about.
Talking of other people who possessed a strength of purpose you find wanting in yourself, have any particular models? I don’t necessarily mean in terms of their lifestyles.
No, I understand perfectly what you’re saying. No, I think I’m very happy with the problems that I have in my own way of living. Day to day is very enjoyable for me and has been for a couple of years now, although I must admit that at one time my lifestyle was far over and above what anybody would sensibly inflict on themselves. But at the moment it’s a rush, and it’s really very enjoyable. Growing up with my son is one of the greatest enjoyments that I have.
But on an aesthetic level – no, no (conclusively), I’m quite happy with my lot as a writer. I would really be nervous if I didn’t have the uncertainties and the problems that I do have. I would dread feeling that complacent.
But do specific media-related problems frustrate you? Scary Monsters was finished months ago and still isn’t released. Does that kind of thing annoy you, that lack of immediacy in communicating to your audience?
Oh God, yes. That sort of thing is just horrendous. Obviously I’ve already got a backlog of stuff I want to record, which I guess I’ll start doing after Christmas. But I think it only becomes a drag for reasons of personal satisfaction, because the material isn’t disposed of, swept out of the way so I can’t get on with something else.
But as far as actual songs themselves are concerned, I don’t think they’re written with any particular timespan in mind. For me I don’t think it would really matter whatever they’d been released two years ago or two years forward. I think they’re pieces of music I could listen to anytime. But I have to take that into consideration these days when I record something, as to whether or not I would want to listen to it again in a few year’s time.
I try not to write as immediately as I once used to. There was a time when I was very keen to write songs that had a very definite edge to them, like all of Diamond Dogs comes over in a completely different light. It still has a validity, a strong one, but at the time and for a couple of years after it felt as if it was firmly slotted into that particular period. I had a thing about trying to write every year about that year, but I’ve loosened up now, I think … (Coco appears at the foot of the stage pointing at her watch).
Got a last one?
Any message for the folks back home?
Oh God, don’t you dare.
After I’ve stopped the tape, Bowie and I surface as if from deep trance. He asks if he can look at my copious but unused notes.
« It’s a bloody thesis! » he exclaims.
« Well, what did you expect? »
« But don’t you think I’m entitled to make similar preparations of my own? »
« Of course, » I reply, « but it never happens that way, does it? »
« Shame, really. I must say I wasn’t looking forward at this at all, but have been pleasantly surprised at how it’s gone. »
Outside the theatre the inevitable limo arrives and, rather ridiculously, accelerates briskly away from the deserted sidewalk.
David Bowie is an intelligent, articulate and fascinating man who is still writing messages to himself and sealing them in bottles. It’s an obsessively private process that for obvious reasons he offers up for public scrutiny. Whatever he may think or feel, Bowie has done both good things and bad things. He has also done a lot more out of the blue than he may ever surmise.
Unsuspectingly I’m sure, Bowie positively leaks loneliness; it wraps itself around him like a clammy shroud. But the man is driven, and it’s surely no accident that on Scary Monsters he sings Tom Verlaine’s ‘Kingdom Come’ with such unguarded passion;
Well I’ll be breaking these rocks until the kingdom comes
And cuttin’ this hay until the kingdom comes
Yes I’ll be breaking these rocks until the kingdom comes
It’s my price to pay until the kingdom comes
Such is the alternately frustrating and rewarding lot of the long-distance creative person and such is David Bowie’s typically reflective portrait of himself – the artist as a now not so young man. You must make of both whatever you will.